Automobile theft is a serious problem and an $8 billion industry in the United States. Nationwide, 363.3 vehicles per 100,000 people are stolen each year and only 50 to 60 percent of stolen vehicles are recovered by police. Luxury and basic vehicles are targeted by thieves. California and the Southwest topped the list of the ten metropolitan areas with the most stolen cars: Laredo, Texas; Modesto, California; Bakersfield, California; Stockton, California; Fresno, California; Yakima, Washington; San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont, California; Visalia/Porterville, California; Las Vegas/Paradise, Nevada; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Large vehicles and desirable luxury cars are attractive to thieves. These vehicles comprised the top ten most stolen vehicles in 2010: the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Silverado, Dodge Charger, Chevrolet Avalanche, Infiniti G47 coupe, GMC Sierra crew cab, Nissan Maxima, Hummer H2, GMC Yukon XL, and Chevrolet Tahoe. Late model vehicles have the latest theft deterrent systems, but determined thieves simply load them onto flatbeds to strip for parts or ship overseas.

Photo | Freefoto: Flickr

Many auto thieves steal cars for parts, which means that older vehicles are not safe from thieves. Common vehicles and older models that lack theft deterrent systems are popular targets for component theft. These vehicles topped the 2009 most commonly stolen vehicles: the 1994 Honda Accord, the 1995 Honda Civic, the 1989 Toyota Camry, the 1997 Ford F-150, the2004 Dodge Ram, the 2000 Dodge Caravan, the 1996 Jeep Cherokee, the 1994 Acura Integra, the 1999 Ford Taurus, and the 2002 Ford Explorer. Auto theft prevention devices, such as smart keys, fuel cut-offs, kill switches, and GPS tracking devices, make stealing newer cars more difficult and dangerous, which has increased the popularity of stealing cars for parts. Airbags, electronic components, and stereo systems are the targets of many component thefts. Each year, over 75,000 airbags are stolen, each of which costs $1,000 for owners to replace. Other components targeted by thieves including car tires, rims, and catalytic converters. Thieves also target the owner’s personal information, such as registration, license, and insurance card to facilitate identity theft.

What to do if it happens to you:

If your car is stolen, call police immediately. Use a cell phone, if possible, to avoid leaving the scene. Reporting the theft quickly is important, because each hour lost means your vehicle is closer to being stripped for parts, driven out of town, or loaded onto a ship. Give the police your vehicle’s make, model, color, license plate number, and vehicle identification number (VIN). Provide your insurance and registration information to the police. Report the theft to your insurance and provide your registration information to them as well. Your insurance may or may not cover a rental car and may require a waiting period before rental. Check with your insurance to see if you are covered before you rent a car. Make a list of everything inside your car when it was stolen: include after-market add-ons, such as stereos, speakers, video systems, and rims, CDs, and personal effects such as PDAs, MP3 players, and laptops. If your wallet or other personally identifying information is in the stolen car, contact your credit card companies, the state DMV, and other agencies to report the theft and get replacement cards. Stay in contact with the officer assigned to your case to follow up on efforts to recover your vehicle.

Photo | Nick Ares: Flickr

Prevention Methods:

Completely preventing car theft is impossible, but there are steps you can take to minimize your risk. These steps will foil joy-riding amateurs and slow down professionals, possibly enough to discourage him. Having after-market anti-theft systems installed by a professional is the best way to prevent theft and maximize your chances of recovery if your car is stolen. Car alarms that notify you when activated, rather than audible alarms, will minimize false alarms and increase the chances your vehicle will be recovered.

Common sense goes a long way toward preventing theft. Keep valuables, such as GPS devices and MP3 players, out of sight. Remove cell phone chargers, GPS power cards, detachable CD players and other tell-tale signs that expensive electronics are inside the glove box. Do not display decals advertising your alarm system or stereo system. Never leave your keys in or around your vehicle. Do not hide extra keys to your home or vehicle in the vehicle or attacked to its underside – thieves know where to find these “hidden” spots. Do not leave your car running with the keys inside, even to drop off a video, pay for gas, or go to the ATM. Always park in lots or garages with attendants and in areas with high foot traffic. The bullets below will provide you with more safety precautions to greatly minimize the chance of being the next car theft victim.

Photo | Martin Laine: Flickr